Q & A

How did you find yourself writing a book? What’s the story behind your career? I have always been a communicator in one form or another – reporter, talk show host, professor, cocktail party bore, and so forth.  Books came naturally to me after I realized how much I wrote during a typical day – Good Lord, a day’s worth of news copy adds up to pretty much an entire book chapter.  I moved toward books because I like their permanence, and the fact that they exist as an individual creation.  You can plop one down on a table and it makes a great sound.  Electronic books don’t make any noise, but they are still a unique, self-contained product.

Do you describe yourself as an author? Yes, but more often than not I’ll refer to myself as a storyteller.  I think that humans are hard-wired to respond to stories. That’s what news is, really – stories.  Even advertising copy is a story.   I’ve also written several journalism textbooks, and I always tell students to communicate in terms of stories.  And, of course, I tell them stories to communicate that idea.

What do you think of the writing world? Are you happy being part of it? Yes, I’m happy being part of the writing world and particularly today, a time where digital technology makes connections so much easier – particularly connections to the readers. Let me tell you a story that might not at first seem relevant, but it is.  I show my students a movie titled Good Night and Good Luck, and it’s about Edward R. Murrow and his coverage of McCarthyism in the 1950s.  TV was new then, and the formats and concepts were pretty much being made up on the spot.  I once worked with a fellow, when I was at the beginning of my career and he was near the end of his, who as a young man worked with Murrow on that program.  I remarked how I envied him having been in television at a time when he could be a pioneer.  He told me I was crazy – today, he said, the digital era, is a much more wide-open frontier to communicators with the pioneer spirit.  And so that’s my idea of the writing world today.  We’re on the edge of a new frontier.  We’re not exactly sure where the technology is heading, but that’s part of the fun.

What makes your subject interesting? Josiah Hawke is a nice guy who kills.  He is also a very moral person who kills. In addition, Hawke is a former philosophy professor who thinks about morality a lot – including the fact that he kills.  I think Hawke’s struggle represents something inside all of us: the realization that sometimes ugly things have to be done to keep the world pretty for the nice people.

Another aspect of the Hawke story is that he’s enforcing the law in a time when the concept of justice is still developing.  They didn’t call it the Wild West for nothing.  Still, even in a time when in many places right or wrong was decided by the gun on your hip, there was often a strong sense of morality embedded in day-to-day life.

Moreover, we are interested in Hawke because he is good at what he does.  He is a trained fighter with fists, knives, and guns, and lives in a very elite and dangerous world.

What makes you an interesting author? I try to bring historical detail to the work, for one thing.  I don’t mean getting the calibres of the guns correct or having the right type of tree growing in a particular part of Texas, although I of course do pay attention to such things.  I try to capture, as best I can, the thinking of someone in the 1870s.  What was it like to be essentially alone in situations of explosive violence? Being chased by Comanches with no 9-1-1 to call? Was the telegraph as fascinating to Josiah Hawke in 1875 as Twitter is to us today (Answer:  Yes.)

How many times have you wished you’d started writing earlier? Almost every day I lament that I didn’t start a particular project earlier.  But, to quote a cliché I think is over-used, things happen for a reason.  Or at least I like to think they do.  Maybe I put off, for example, starting the Hawke-Carmody series too long…but perhaps the best thing in the book was unconsciously drawn from something that happened a few months ago.  So, who knows?

Who are your favourite authors? In the Western genre, Robert B. Parker and Louis L’Amour.  Both were wonderful wordsmiths and could almost exert some supernatural influence to make you turn the page.  And Parker was a master of dialogue.  In suspense and crime, Parker, Donald Westlake, and Elmore Leonard.   All three had one thing in common: They brought humor to their work, an essential ingredient to maintaining interest – mine, anyway.  In general terms, my favorite author was probably George Plimpton.   If the name is not familiar, you would almost certainly remember some of his nonfiction books, in which he inserted himself into professional sports.  He once talked the Detroit Lions into letting him attend training camp as a tryout quarterback.  He didn’t fool anybody for long, but his wonderful writing captured the essence of a normal person dealing with extraordinary circumstances.  His grace and humor were masterful.

How much time do you spend writing? About five hours a day, sometimes more, very rarely less. I’m not one for marathon writing sessions.  I suppose it works for some people, but I think you reach a point of diminishing returns.  I can write a good (in my opinion, anyway) 1000 words from 6 to 8 a.m., but after than even another ten hours might only produce 200 words of good prose.

What are you reading right now? Sue Grafton’s “W is for Wasted.”  She passed away recently and on hearing the news, I felt the need to continue reading where I had left off in her long crime series.  Grafton created a likeable and durable series character, a classic example of why first-person fiction is so appealing.

Do you have a set writing schedule? I do, although events frequently conspire to derail me.  I generally like to write in the early mornings.  I’m not a morning person in the sense that I wake up cheerful and can’t wait to start the day…in fact, that is about the exact opposite of my personality.  However, I realize that despite how lousy I feel the early mornings are my most productive hours.  Ideally, I’d get at the keyboard at six.

The most important aspect is getting words on the page regularly.  I often hear people say they don’t have time to write a book.  I can understand that, but I wonder if they are ultimately fooling themselves.  If you regularly can write one page a day – and who can’t do that? – you can produce a book a year.

What’s the biggest hurdle to getting words on the page and how do you overcome it? The biggest hurdle is that it’s so easy not to write.  So I look at writing just like any other job.  I need to produce a certain amount on a certain day and just resolve to do it.  I don’t wait for “inspiration.”  A great painter named Chuck Close said it best – in a quote I post on my office door at the university where I teach.  “Inspiration,” Close said, “is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

If you could work with any author who would it be? Lawrence Block.  He is a prolific author of excellent crime novels and has written several classic writing-instruction books.  I admire all his work and would be fascinated by seeing him apply the principles he has described so well.